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What is GNU/Linux?


The operating system (OS) which is now generally known as 'Linux' should really be called GNU/Linux:

" Linux is not an operating system, it is a kernel. The GNU Project started in 1984 to develop a completely free operating system. In 1991, Linus wrote a kernel, Linux. The kernel was the last essential core component of the system to be developed, and that's why, as soon as it existed, a complete free system was available. It is a combination of GNU and Linux; in other words, it is the GNU/Linux operating system."  Richard Stallman, The GNU Project

GNU stands for GNU's Not Unix with the G pronounced as in the name of the animal, Gnu (an ox-like antelope).

Free Software

This is the definition given by Richard Stallman, of the GNU Project:

"Free Software" refers to the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3).

  • A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission.

    The main advantages of using GNU/Linux are:

    1) It is mostly free software

    2) It has good security

    3) It has excellent networking capabilities

    4) It is both powerful and flexible

    5) It is cheap to install - compared to other OS

    6) Add-on software (such as Apache server) can be obtained free, compared to hundreds of pounds for proprietary software for other OS

    7) It supports multiple users on the same machine

    8) It offers excellent multitasking

    9) Its source code is freely available - unlike the copyrighted code of other OS. This means (among many other things) that any 'bugs' in new versions of GNU/Linux software are usually fixed within hours by the world-wide GNU/Linux community compared to the months it can take for other OS

    10) There are no expensive licenses to buy to install GNU/Linux on additional machines

    11) It is possible to create a custom GNU/Linux OS for each particular machine

    12) It is fast

    All these things make GNU/Linux an ideal business workstation and an ideal desktop system.

    Furthermore, one of the greatest benefits of GNU/Linux is that it gives the user control over their operating system. That is, GNU/Linux users can not only configure their own system but they can also repair it if anything goes wrong - for all the tools necessary to do this are included in all GNU/Linux distributions.

    To do both of these things requires some knowledge - and this where GNU/Linux really excels. It is possible to 'take GNU/Linux apart' to see how it works, and then put it back together again. This practical, interactive, approach is how learning to use computers should be - and with GNU/Linux this learning can be, and mostly is, interesting, fun and very useful.

    GNU/Linux Distributions

    There are several different distributions of the GNU/Linux OS. Many of these distributions now seek to imitate MS Operating Systems, such as Win98, by having a slick GUI (graphical user interface) with icons which when clicked with the mouse start programs (or what GNU/Linux more correctly calls processes) and which try to do away with the shell (the 'command line') where users have to type in commands. These imitative distributions also try to make the install itself a graphical based one with as little interaction from the user as possible, as they offer various graphical configuration tools to enable the user to configure the system, within certain limits, once it is up and running.

    Further, most distributions do not adhere to the GNU principle of everything in the distribution being 'free software'. However, most of these imitative distributions are easier for new users to install and use. Of all the current distributions only Debian still upholds the principles of free software - everything in their 'official' distributions is free software and can be copied, installed on other machines and freely distributed.  Also, Debian still is an interactive Operating System, and thus upholds the spirit of GNU/Linux (see Why Debian?).

    Each user, or potential user, of the GNU/Linux OS must ask themselves a question - which do I prefer: free software, and the freedom, interaction and social responsibility which goes with it, or ease of use? (see Talking Freedom)

    Some Drawbacks of GNU/Linux

    There are three main drawbacks:

    1) GNU/Linux generally does not support the very latest devices/accessories - the very latest video cards, for instance, or the latest scsi adapters; the Linux kernel - and the X server - will be updated to include them, in due course. However, by the time they are supported, they may well be much cheaper and probably more useful, with more software developed to take advantage of them.

    2) There are fewer commercial software applications than for MS Operating Systems. This situation is gradually changing, and nearly everything that can be done using MS Operating Systems can now be done using GNU/Linux (often better) - however, doing some things under GNU/Linux still requires more time and effort, or more technical knowledge.

    3) It is sometimes complicated to get peripheral devices, such as scanners, to work - and even sound cards can cause problems. Most GNU/Lunux systems when newly installed have to be configured for these devices to work and this configuration often requires some time and effort, or some technical knowledge.

    There is another (minor) drawback if you as a user of GNU/Linux decide that you value and want to uphold the principles of free software - and so only use software covered by the GNU copyleft. In this case, there may be some things you might not be able to do as easily as you might otherwise because the GNU/Linux utilities required to do them easily are covered by restrictive copyrights (one thinks here of such utilities as Netscape, WordPerfect and Applixware).